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Effective Idea Selection is Critical to Systematic Innovation
“The key is to pick the things you think are really important and then focus on them like a laser.” — Jeff Bezos, Founder and Chairman, Amazon.com
Of all the ways to discover new ideas, the Walt Disney Company had one of the more unconventional methods during the Eisner years. Modeled after a 1970s television program, Disney’s “Gong Show” became a big hit with rank-and-file employees. Three times a year, Eisner and two of his top lieutenants devoted a day to listening to anyone and everyone—secretaries, set designers, theme park employees—who wanted to pitch an idea. Up to 40 people were allowed to demonstrate, present or imitate their idea until a loud gong signaled that time was up. After all the ideas were aired, Eisner and his managers discussed each one and made a decision.
A little unorthodox, yes, but it worked amazingly well. According to Peter Schneider, the president of Disney features at the time, most of Disney’s animated films came from these sessions, as did the idea for Disney retail stores. Most organizations don’t invite ideas with nearly that flair. Nor do they provide instant feedback or quick yes/no decisions. “In most companies, there is no obvious strategy for selecting or even evaluating ideas,” concludes the American Management Association’s survey of 1,356 global executives. Almost half (48%) of respondents said their firms “do not have a standard policy for evaluating ideas.” The next most common reaction? About 17% said they used an “independent review and evaluation process,” while 15% said “ideas were evaluated by the manager of the unit where the idea was proposed.”
An effective selection process connects your “idea funnel” to your “idea pipeline.” Without it, this knowledge is haphazard, hierarchical, and discouraging to potential innovators.
The benefits of a robust selection process
When working with companies just starting their innovation journey, I often hear managers say that they have “too many ideas, not too few”. How can you have so many good ideas, I ask. Upon further discussion, it often turns out that they have too many half-baked incremental ideas that lead nowhere quickly. “We never seem to kill an idea,” is a comment I often hear. This suggests that there is no mechanism, no review board or committee to sift, sort, reject, promote, prioritize and ultimately ‘green’ ideas forward. As Yogi Berra would say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”
It takes 80 to 100 rough ideas before you come across one or two that are promising enough to be implemented. So the task of the selection team is to identify one or two – but to do so without demoralizing those whose ideas are not accepted. The selection team serves not only as an evaluation body, but also as a teaching tool. At Disney, regular contributors overcame shyness and fear of rejection to get in front of the boss and sell their ideas. Why? Because they knew they would get a fair, if brief, hearing and at least honest feedback about why their idea wasn’t chosen. When employees see that their ideas are being given a fair hearing, they will start coming forward with more of them. At Google, Marissa Mayer and the core management team meet several times a week to listen to an endless stream of new ideas. Googlers have up to five minutes to suggest the next GMail, Froogle, Search or Google Earth. If they are shy, they can apply through the company’s intranet idea management system. When it comes to selection, no one size fits all. Your method simply needs to fit your culture and create transparency for potential intrapreneurs.
Setting criteria is critical
Most companies never get around to explaining the kinds of ideas they’re looking for—so their criteria is unclear. Without criteria, every idea has equal value, leading to roadblocks and battles over limited resources and inertia. “People in this company never let go of their pet ideas,” is another comment I often hear.
On the other hand, well-conceived criteria can be used to make people think more in order to expand on them. GE CEO Jeff Immelt requires each division to produce three Imagination Breakthroughs a year—game-changing ideas that create entirely new business models or product lines with $100 million in sales within three years. Selection criteria are best when they are simple and memorable; they are most valuable when they are widely understood throughout the organization. At WL Gore & Associates, the criteria were reduced to three words: Real, Win, Worth. Is the opportunity real? Can we win the market with it? Is it worth watching?
At Bank of America, selection teams in each business unit evaluate ideas using a well-publicized scorecard. Using a simple score from zero to five, ideas are evaluated on dimensions such as: ease of implementation, impact on co-workers, customer satisfaction and, of course, revenue potential. At one technology company, the criteria came down to five questions:
1. Does this idea correspond to our innovation strategy? 2. Does it create new value for our clients? 3. Is there a demand for this innovation? 4. Will management support it? 5. Can the solution be qualified?
Getting the right people on the selection team
Unfortunately, selection teams often employ individuals who have little or no contact with customers and market needs and who have little understanding of innovation. Establishing intelligent criteria is essential, but those who apply the criteria to real ideas must also recognize the limits of the criteria, especially for ideas of radical innovation. For example, if the criteria questions whether there is a “demand for this new product/service”, it can be easy to say no. But game-changing innovations—the cell phone, the Post-it Note, the Internet—always create demand. And customers don’t know what they want until they see it and use it. So while selection criteria is critical, it is equally important to have the right people on your selection/review team to make intuitive decisions.
The behavior of the selection team must not discourage the flow of new ideas, but should encourage greater participation. Team members must be seen as unbiased, entrepreneurial (in touch with markets and customer needs), and adept at generating ideas themselves rather than just making judgments. Pitch meetings should be interactive sessions where the emphasis is on questions and unknowns as much as on answers, on the level of passion and commitment as much as the level of experience of the individual proposing the idea. At a large global bank I worked with earlier this decade, we set up Magnet teams in every country where the bank operated to handle idea selection and oversee compliance and risk management. At one point, we started hearing complaints that these teams were acting more like police officers than coaches who help you play by the rules but also want you to succeed.
Having a selection process in place won’t guarantee you’ll find breakthrough ideas, but it will reduce idea blocking and allow you, as Jeff Bezos says, to “pick the things that really matter and then focus on them like a laser.” It’s no wonder that brainstorming is fast becoming an established and essential best practice for companies trying to incorporate innovation into their company.
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